The outcome of these discussions was always the same. There was nothing you could do about it, the aid workers regretfully concluded. You weren't here to interfere in people's cultural traditions. The Pashtuns were just like that. You couldn't change them. It was pointless to offer services that would benefit the women, because the Afghans just didn't want that. They were used to things being this way. Even the women themselves didn't expect anything different. I found these discussions deeply depressing, of course, but was inclined at first to accept the premise. It was obvious that the Afghans lived in an age, if not a universe, quite different from our own. Their men indeed made a very resolute impression and did not at first sight appear to be a group you could easily sway or mold.
Collectively, their reputation was this: an intractable, archaic people, stubborn, violent, with a history of overthrowing any ruler who tried to reform their backward social ways and of defeating any foreigner who tried to change them. Even their own kings were not able to move them forward by more than a cautious millimeter or so without risking assassination or at best deposition. They rose up when you tried to free their women from the veil. Talk of educating their girls, and they would rebel. After hearing enough of these cautionary tales, the term they might start nagging at you a little. "They" were the Afghan men, clearly. Weren't the Afghan women part of the national "they"? Did they have opinions, too? It seemed not. "They don't question their lot," you would be told. "They feel safe within the family," some would offer consolingly. "They can't imagine a different life." I couldn't argue with any of that. The statistics were appalling, mortality rates astronomically high, literacy rates appallingly low, but in the end they were just thatnumbers.
It was hard to get any real sense of Afghan women. You never met them, they didn't talk to you, you barely saw them. They were little more than a defensive motion in the distancea covering hastily drawn around themselves and a glimpse of fabric as they disappeared into the recesses of a tent at the first sight of strangers. At your approach, the women vanished with the same immediate magic that made the men suddenly appear. Maybe the women really did accept things as they were. Maybe it really would take a very, very long time to gradually change things. Maybe you really couldn't apply your own standards and had to leave it up to them to transform their own society in due course.
Maybe they really were so shy and traditional that the idea of visiting a clinic, of going to a school, of leaving their tents was anathema to them. Then, on a later trip, I was told that there was a hospital for Afghan women, a small one, on the outskirts of Peshawar, run by an idealistic group of Afghan doctorsand that I might find it an interesting place to visit. It wasn't part of my official program, so I took a scooter taxi, tunneling down a series of increasingly narrow streets and alleys until I reached the flat brown building, encircled by a mud wall, that held this clinic. There was one ward, a large room consisting of about thirty beds. The doctor led me in and took me from bed to bed. I started at the first one and made my way around the room, talking to each occupant while he translated or added his own explanation. The visit lasted for perhaps an hour, but it seemed like forever, in the way of tragedies and accidents and other terrible, unmeasurable moments. It is no exaggeration to say that when I emerged from that room, I was not the same person who had gone in.
The women in that ward were simple, ordinary refugee women. They came from villages or very small towns. Even before becoming refugees, they had been poor. They had no education. They had no notion of an outside world where life might be different. They were being treated for various ailments, but in the end, their gender was their ailment.
Excerpted from Veiled Courage by Cheryl Benard Copyright 2002 by Cheryl Benard. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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